A Liturgy for Children of Divorce
December 10, 2010
While driving home from North Carolina the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I looked into the rearview mirror and saw my eleven year old son racked with sobs. When asked what was wrong, he replied, “It just didn’t feel right without Pop there. I hate this divorce.” Two years ago my parents separated and subsequently divorced (and my father remarried) after 44 years of marriage. I knew the divorce had impacted the children, as well as myself, but I had no idea how deeply they were grieving.
Because my parents live in Georgia, we only see them 4-5 times a year. For the children, the divorce did not feel two years old, but rather fresh, new, and raw. The presence of my mother and the absence of my father during Thanksgiving, therefore, inflamed an open wound that had not been given a place or a means to heal. Both of my parents had hijacked my attention with their “needs,” and as often happens in divorce, the children were left behind. They were not daily suffering the pain of loss as was my mother, nor were they daily celebrating the new life as was my father; instead, they were intermittently confronted with the harsh realities of the divorce. They were not able to heal as each visit ripped off the tenuous scab which was barely able to contain the festering grief and anger underneath. “The grief work was not done.”
In a class lecture the week following Thanksgiving, Carvalhaes said that “A rite of passage is important to make sure you get to the other side. It is important so that you don’t leave people in limbo—lingering somewhere in between.”
I had left my children lingering, and I was lingering. Like the Israelites, we were wandering in the desert seemingly with no direction and uncertain about what lay ahead. I heard from my children the despair the Israelites must have felt when they complained to Moses about bringing them out of Egypt. While life in Egypt was not ideal, at least they had food, and they knew what to expect.
We all recognized my parents were unhappy; we could recount the tension that permeated during visits, and we did not miss the constant bickering. Nevertheless, it was a known and we knew how to “be” within the system. We were disoriented and needed a ritual to help us through this rite of passage.
Grimes cautions, “Life passages are rough, fraught with spiritual potholes, even mortal dangers. Some passages we know are coming; others happen upon us….More often than not, these events, especially when they arrive unanticipated, are undergone without benefit of ritual.”
The world for my children, and for all children of divorce, had been permanently altered, and they had no voice. They were powerless and silenced. Grimes continues, “Passages can be negotiated without the benefit of rites, but in their absence, there is a greater risk of speeding through the dangerous intersections of the human life course.”
Many times we believe that if we don’t talk about it and just move quickly into the “new normal” than everything will be fine. We are so paralyzed by our fear of creating more pain that we mask the pain already present. “Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes around which hungry ghosts, those greedy personifications of unfinished business, hover.”
How many spiritual, psychological, relational, and emotional problems could be averted if we marked, however painful it may be, the end of a marriage and thus a family as it is known? Children need “rites with the capacity to divine and shape what is beyond conscious control.”
As a strong family of faith ensconced in the Episcopal Church, it is natural for us to turn to a liturgy. As I searched for a liturgy that would be appropriate for our family, I was amazed to find none. There are many beautiful liturgies written for the couple ending their marriage, but I could find none that specifically addressed the children of divorce. Why are children so often forgotten in our worship and liturgies? Why do we so often push them aside and assume they’ll “get over it?” What are we saying about their personhood? Are people not fully in the image of God until they are adults; are they not complete human beings? Children of all ages need to have their spiritual, psychological, and emotional needs met as they navigate the complexities of divorce.
A Dictionary for Episcopalians defines liturgy as a “word deriving from the Greek leitourgia, which means “the work of the people.”
It is in community that a liturgy has the power to transform; it requires active participation by all. Liturgies, as modeled in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, help to move us from the past to the present and into the future. Through liturgy we are able to give thanks for the past, acknowledge and embrace where we are in the present, and bless the hope of the future.
A liturgy created to help move children through a divorce must actively involve the children as part of the work of the people. They cannot be expected to just follow along as though they were cargo; they need to be intimately involved in the healing process.
Ronald Grimes states, “Deeply into the Bone is about the power of rites, both traditional and invented, to facilitate or obstruct difficult passages in the course of a human life.”
He distinguishes between a rite and a rite of passage. “To enact any kind of rite is to perform, but to enact a rite of passage is also to transform.”
Creating a liturgy with the hope of transformation necessitates close attention to symbols and their meanings. Grimes describes it as, “the threshold zone is a no-man’s-land, it is dangerous, full of symbolic meaning, and guarded. A rite of passage is a set of symbol-laden actions by means of which one passes through a dangerous zone, negotiating it safely and memorably.”
Every liturgy must be acutely aware of the people who are participating; therefore, changes sometimes have to be made in the details of the structure. Creating a liturgy for the healing of the experience of divorce is no different. “Even so, many people have no other alternative than to invent makeshift rites with which to patch the holes in the fabric of their ripped collective lives.”
The liturgy itself does not have the power, but rather “as God the Spirit works through the liturgy to become present and accessible to us, so God the Spirit works through the liturgy to lead us to reconciliation with our neighbors and with the world.”
The following liturgy was created to help our family mend the holes of our hearts.
A Liturgy for Grieving and Healing After Divorce
We have a family beach house where my children have grown up. Our nuclear family has moved five times in the children’s short lives, but the beach house was always a constant. It is more central to the children’s lives than any other house. My father retained ownership of the house after the divorce. My mother has since moved North Carolina and a new beach.
In the center of the table will be placed a framed picture of my parents together. Scattered in front of the picture will be various pictures chosen by the children. These pictures are being chosen from times we were together. Behind the picture will be an empty vase of water. On either side of the center picture will be a framed picture of each of my parents alone. In front of each picture will be a jar of sand from the beach in front of their homes. On either side of these pictures will be empty photo albums.
Each person will hold a rose.
We have come together in the presence of God to mark the divorce of Bahbah and Pop. We come together in our grief and anger for the change it brings into our lives. We bring you our pain as we seek to understand what we can neither understand nor control. We desire to remain in relationship with both our grandparents loving and honoring them.
Exodus 16: 1-12 and John 11:17-37
As the Israelites complained in the desert feeling alone and abandoned, so we complain. We know you provided for them each day the food they needed. We ask that you provide for us; we do not know what we may need, we are lonely and we are afraid. Be with us, weep with us as you did with Mary and Martha, and bring us to healing.
Almighty God we give you thanks for the marriage of Bahbah and Pop. We thank you for our memories we have of their marriage. (Time will be taken to share memories of them during their marriage.) We also have memories of special times we have spent with each individually over the years. (Time to share these memories) We grieve the future that will not be as we planned. (Time to share these—ie: graduations, weddings etc). We give you thanks for the lives which have come from the marriage of Bahbah and Pop. We give you thanks for each person here and for those who cannot be with us. We offer to one another the sign of peace as a sign of love and reconciliation.
Sign of Peace
Eternal God, creator and preserver of all life, author of salvation and giver of grace: Look with favor upon the world you have made and for which your Son gave his life. Grant us grace in moving from the old ways into the ordering of our new lives with Bahbah and Pop. Grant that we may know the power of your love to transform death into life and to bring forth the discovery of new identity and memories out of pain.
(A sign of the cross is made on the each of the framed pictures on the table using consecrated oil.) We ask that you bless the experiences we have yet to share with each of our grandparents. (The empty photo albums are blessed.)
We give you thanks for the beautiful family that has been created through the love Bahbah and Pop once shared. (Each person places their rose in the vase.) We remain a family bringing forth new joy.
Holy One, in the bond of marriage you provide a sign of your eternal love for us. When our love is strong and true, we feel cradled in your embrace: when love breaks, we feel lost to you. Yet you are the God who holds your people in a sacred covenant, loving each of us as though there were but one of us. The marriage of Bahbah and Pop has ended, and so we seek your healing for their hearts and lives. Help them forgive whatever wounds they inflicted on each other. Let them surrender their past, looking with hope toward the future you bring them. Guard and heal us their children who grieve their parting from one another. And bring us all to that day when our love will be made perfect and our joy complete in you, through Jesus Christ, in whom all things find perfection. Amen.
1 Ronald L. Grimes, “Bird Droppings on the Buddha” in Marrying and Burying, Rites of Passage in a man’s Life (Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1995), 110.
2 Claudio Carvalhaes, (lecture for Introduction to Worship, Louisville Seminary, Louisville, KY, December 30, 2010).
3 Exodus 16:3 (New Revised Standard Version)
4 Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply into the Bone (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000), 5
6 Ibid. 6.
7 Grimes, Marrying and Burying, 74.
8 John N. Wall, A Dictionary for Episcopalians (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000), 76.
9 Charles P. Price & Louis Weil, Liturgy for Living (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000), 35.
10 Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply into the Bone (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000), 5.
11 Grimes, Deeply into the Bone, 7.
12 Ibid., 6
13 Grimes, Marrying & Burying, 120.
14 Price & Weil, 36.
16 adapted from Changes: Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 45.